You are walking down a village street on one of the 17,504 islands that comprise, at low tide, the Indonesian Archipelago. Or one of the 13,466 that remain at high tide. It is frying-pan hot and you are thirsty; part of Indonesia, fourth most populous country on the planet, lies on the Equator. Not a Coke machine in sight, but being Elizabeth Pisani, you have been kicking around these islands for years — on and off since 1988 — and you know that Indonesians are people of unstinting largesse. Your thirst will be slaked.
A young boy greets you and welcomes you into his home. You can converse with him because, having spent all those years in the islands — first for Reuters, then as an epidemiologist, now as a rambler with a book contract — you have picked up a few of the country’s 719 languages. The boy would like you to meet his granny. You agree, because a glass or two of something to drink is also likely. First, the boy brings you to a bulging laundry bag, which he unties. Inside is granny. She’s dead and ripe but receiving guests before she is tucked into the earth in a few days’ time. To say Pisani is unfazed would deny the moment, but she knows this is the land of the improbable. After introductions, a cup of chrysanthemum tea is gratefully accepted.
The Etc. in Indonesia Etc. is anywhere other than Sumatra and Java, the big islands that command most of the country’s gravity. Still, there is enough backwater here to curdle any expectation, and Pisani’s travels perforce are spontaneous — more than once verging on fearless, or perhaps reckless — because planning itineraries is a mug’s game in Indonesia: boats never come, buses always break down, planes change route mid-flight. Maybe it’s to obscure little Sumba, where granny has hopefully been laid to rest by now. “If you are sailing downwind from one of the smaller islands of Maluku in July clove-drying season, you can sometimes smell Christmas before you can even see land.” Allow me to pointlessly point out that Pisani writes with striking imagery — poignant, highly colored, as transporting as a postcard plastered with exotic stamps. “Here in Gaura I was overcome by a millpond calm.” In a volcanic crater on Flores are three lakes: one milk white, one blood red, one emerald green. They swap colors from time to time. When Pisani visits, the white and the green lakes are canoodling to make turquoise. Elsewhere there are crocodile whisperers, forest people, religious gangs that run protection rackets, and many little absurdist turns that might have been scripted by Ionesco.
Yes, this is a travel book, but Pisani was once a reporter in this country. She got into trouble, like a good reporter should, trying to investigate rumors of extrajudicial killings in Aceh. She knows her local politics and she has read her history, so she can explain why early trade in spices and camphor, ivory and pearls, gold and indigo, ants’ nests and sea slugs — with Persians, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese, who came and went — was a very different activity than the zero-sum game the Dutch brought, which was not really trade at all. Call it monopoly growing out of the barrel of a gun. Or why Sukarno’s centralism was a cry from Suharto’s, and why the decentralization that followed Suharto’s reign ushered in “a central dilemma of modernization in collective societies: the all-encompassing security of the shared culture gets sold off in exchange for individual fulfillment.” The laws of reciprocity, the warp and weft of mutual obligations, are much in evidence, but “justice goes to the highest bidder,” a lawyer tells Pisani. In a national poll of the most corrupt institutions taken in 2008, topping the list was the national parliament, then the political parties, then the attorney general. Of 1,556 reports of judicial misconduct, a special commission investigated 212 cases and referred 27 to the Supreme Court, which acted on exactly 0.
By now, Pisani has got elements of Indonesia turning like glass in a kaleidoscope, falling into one singular, thronging configuration after another. More shards are thrown in: religions; the coronation of a sultan attended by “a group of dwarves and albinos, and even one or two albino dwarves”; birdsong; hot-blooded separatists; thugs running the marijuana trade (she didn’t meet these guys, though marijuana is a standard ingredient in Indonesian cookery); and speaking of food: shrimp cooked with stink beans, giant jackfruit swimming in coconut sauce, aubergines in chili paste, papaya leaves with marsh weeds, sweetcorn and pumpkin mash. The kaleidoscope’s design becomes as wonderworking as a rose window.
Nonetheless, Pisani seeks that elusive “‘red thread’ that binds these different islands and cultures into a single nation,” but there will be no neat summary. Jakarta is home to the big economic and political bullyboys, megamalls, and gated communities, yet the detonation of centralization post-Suharto resulted in a flabbergasting number of districts, each with its own bupati, or headman. It is expensive to become a bupati — just ask any American politician — and so patronage and all its cousins abound. Sometimes this greases the wheels, sometimes it results in venality and slaughter. Each island is a bit unto itself (albeit under Jakarta’s thumb politically), occasionally expressing a painfully refined cultural specificity — “wearing a Solo batik to a Yogya coronation would have been like going to a royal wedding in Britain wearing a pair of knickers on my head.”
The legacy of profound subjugation has left a mean impact: “a culture in which everyone seeks only to serve their boss, and in which the unaccountable boss has only his own interests at heart.” Pisani doesn’t buy this state of affairs wholesale, for she has seen the old-fashioned village collectivity and welcome at work. There is no red thread, nor is there just black and white. Indonesia remains polychromatic, for better or worse, and most fortunately for the practiced rambler with a book contract.